Tom Wolfe, “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” (1970) – Like a lot of cultural movements of the second half of the twentieth century, “the New Journalism” or “gonzo journalism” did much to break up ossified patterns in a given field, raised up one or two genius figures… and for every genius, launched the careers of a half-dozen cheap hacks who could superficially copy them and who seemingly never, ever go away. So gonzo journalism gave us Hunter S. Thompson, one of the great American writers of his time. It also gave us Tom Wolfe, alas.
You start to sympathize more with literary traditionalists when you realize what letting people experiment means when undertaken by rubes. Thompson could make gonzo work because no matter how far he went out on a limb or how high he got on the job, he had real discipline and craft as a writer. Wolfe… does not. He apes some of the middling-unreadable aspects of modernist literature: lists, imagistic passages meant to be disorienting but mostly just boring, various distending techniques that don’t come across. But while his literary mugging frequently gets in the way, it never truly obscures his main point: name-dropping, talk about interior décor and clothes, posturing of the notables, and miscellaneous class-signifier bullshit. It was truly dispiriting reading his many lists of New York socialites in “Radical Chic;” I recognized few of the names (Leonard Bernstein; Barbara Walters) as crusty old-people favorites, but most of them meant nothing to me. Something tells me they didn’t mean all that much back then, either. But Wolfe is breathlessly taken with them, even as he despises them- kind of like Gollum. It’s even worse with the black radicals in both “Radical Chic” and “Flak Catchers.” Wolfe’s combination of contempt, stabs at hip (not unlike the white liberals he lampoons), and seething jealousy for their charisma comes through loud and clear, but precious little else about the people he’s talking about does.
Presented with two of the broadest targets someone looking to punch liberals could want – upper-crust types playing at radical, and a mutually-parasitic relationship between welfare recipients and social services bureaucrats – he doesn’t even really land that hard. I gotta say, I was expecting something more coruscating (should’ve known better- I tried reading “Bonfire of the Vanities”). “Radical Chic” is a bit better than “Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers” in this regard. If you want an instant low-grade nausea/headache, faithful reader, give Wolfe’s account of a shouted exchange between a Black Panther leader, Leonard Bernstein, Otto Preminger, and Barbara Walters at a party Bernstein threw for some Panther leaders a read. It’s about as bad as you’d expect. “Flak Catchers” is considerably less effective on this score, because it relies on the reader being stunned by the idea that mid-level bureaucrats – the titular “flak catchers” – exist to deal with annoyances their higher-ups want to avoid. Why is this considered a fresh observation? Why did it merit a whole essay, other than for the obvious reason of gawking at the multi-ethnic gangs of youth and their leaders flamboyantly hassling said flak-catchers?
The thing tying the two essays together… well, realistically, it’s Wolfe playing to the desire to gawk and to feel “in the know” on the part of white middle class audiences stuck with the expectation to be “progressive” but looking for the door. But thematically, it’s the kayfabe aspects of sixties radicalism. The “beautiful people” in Bernstein’s Upper East Side apartment don’t really know what the Panthers are about and don’t want to- they’re just a fashion accessory. The bureaucratic flak-catchers in the Great Society welfare program offices of San Francisco exist in tacit agreement with the radical hustlers getting gangs of “The Warriors”-dressed kids to yell at him and threaten riots- without both, nobody, bureaucrat or community organizer, gets their funding, according to the piece. It’s all kayfabe, all fake, all hustle.
There’s an element of truth to this. But the stupid thing is, Wolfe is on the same side of the hustle. He needs it to be a hustle or else he has nothing to write about. If there was anything going on – which he concedes there was with the Panthers, if nothing else their propensity to get assassinated by the police kind of implies they had some contact with reality – he wouldn’t know what to do with it, and clearly doesn’t with the Panthers. He can’t write about the reality of anything, like Thompson did, because he hasn’t got the insight, the talent, or the motivation. He can’t even get at the reality of a given hustle, what’s actually happening behind the posturing- one of Thompson’s specialties. Wolfe has the contemptuous sneer of someone who’s figured it all out without having figured anything out other than convincing other rubes he’s figured something out.
This goes a long way towards explaining Wolfe’s staying power. Bourgeois audiences needed the means to sneer away the upheaval of the 1960s. Simply proclaiming it immoral, anathema, might work for the masses of rubes but it won’t work for people who fancy themselves smart. That’s too panicky, low-class, and besides, they like some of the loosened lifestyle restrictions. So when someone comes along telling them the whole thing was really about something they know about – class signifiers, fashion, posturing – and on top of that, that’s what things in general are all about, no need to interrogate any further, obviously people are going to jump on it. Thompson is dead, in part, because his society drove itself into a ditch rather than learn any lessons from his times. Wolfe continues to swan around in his dumbass white suits because he helped people actively unlearn. *’